When I traveled to Patagonia in November 2017, I knew nothing about the place. None of my friends had been there, and I had not read any books on it.
Normally when I visit a place, I like to read some books on it – not the lonely planet kind of books – but the books that use the country or the region as a setting in a novel or a memoir. So when I get there, I have a bit of understanding of the culture and history of the place to appreciate it more. In the case of Patagonia, I didn’t have a clue. I read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Julius Beerbohm’s Wanderings in Patagonia after witnessing the amazing land.
Looking at the well-developed roads, contemporary towns, and herds of tourists, it is hard to imagine that this place was untouched just one and a half-century ago. It is not certain when Patagonia was discovered.
“Some say it was Americo Vespucio during his expedition in the year 1502. However, the man who first spotted the inhabitants in this land, the Patagones, was Ferdinand Magellanin 1520. Elcano, the only survivor from that expedition returned to Patagonia in 1525.” The First Explorers
Patagonia is a vast expense of land comprising of the whole of Southern end of South America. Extending for more than a million square kilometers, it spreads across both Chile and Argentina. It is surrounded by three oceans – the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Southern Ocean to the south.
So unaware my husband and I were of Patagonia’s significance that we didn’t even book anything beforehand. Unaware of the fact that during peak season (between October and April), everything gets booked out twelve months in advance.
We wasted a whole day in Puerto Montt, where we booked tours and accommodation with a local travel agent (read the story in at Lake District – Chile and Argentina).
We took an overnight flight from Puerto Montt and arrived at Punta Arenas at four in the morning. We had to wait at the airport for another two hours for someone (arranged by the travel agent) to pick us up and drop us at the bus station. The bus station was a basic shed where we waited for another forty minutes for the bus to arrive. Also waiting for the bus under the shed were two English brothers, who were going to trek the famous ‘W’ circuit of Patagonia. I lamented that I couldn’t do such a treacherous trek but managed to impress them by sharing that I hiked Machu Picchu. That was my boasting for the day.
Punta Arena, previously also known as Sandy Point, is the capital of Chile’s southernmost region. It is the largest but sparsely populated, with just 100,000 inhabitants. Its significance lies in Chile’s claim to Antarctica and is often a base for Antarctic expeditions.
For Tourists, it has only one attraction. Museo Nao Victoria. A museum with a full-size replica of the first ship ever to circumnavigate the world Ferdinand Magellan’s Nao Victoria. Since October 2011, the museum has also added a full-size replica of the James Caird, used by Ernest Shackleton during his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the Endurance. (Wikipedia).
We reached Puerto Natales around nine in the morning and were lucky to get an early check-in. Our room in Hotel Costaustralis overlooked the Pacific Ocean and Patagonian Andes. It was big and comfortable with the sun pouring right in. The hotel itself had exquisite chateau-style architecture and must have been very famous with travelers who liked to travel in style for about four decades ago.
We had just four and a half days in Puerto Natales. The next three days were fully booked with tours. The first and last day was free. We decided to use our first day to explore Puerto Natales.
Puerto Natales is 247 km northwest of Punta Arenas and is the gateway to the Torres del Paine, one of Chile’s most popular national parks. It has a mere 20,000 population that swells during the tourist season, which is from October to April when there are more sunny days, less rain, and 16 hours of daylight.
Our first walk from the hotel to the city center was in search of a breakfast place. We were directed to a trendy street where there were heavily priced tiny cafes with a seating capacity of no more than 10 to 20. We picked one and ordered a hefty breakfast because we had not eaten for a long time. The food was delicious, the ambiance was perfect, but the bill was out of this world.
Build around the main square, as most Spanish towns are, Puerto Natales had a fair few restaurants, a church, sovereign shops, a supermarket, and several tiny art galleries. The art galleries were, in fact, souvenir shops. We went in to check out Arte Indio, a very enticing gallery that had a huge array of unusual souvenirs. They were out of our pocket. Instead of buying But photography was free.
At that point originated my love affair of photographing souvenirs. Instead of buying them, lugging them all through the trip, finding a place to display them at home, and then soon after throwing them in charity bins because you get sick of dusting them, photographing them was a much better option.
Later, at a corner, we found several handicraft shops. I did the same thing. I took a lot of photographs. Their display was focused on earlier inhabitants of Puerto Natales.
On the walk back to the hotel, we came across a wall covered in a mural depicting the life of earlier inhabitants of Patagonia.
They were called Tehuelches Indians. They were well built, much taller than European men ( 9-11 feet tall), and could run faster than horses. They were known to hunt ostriches and guanacos (a camel-like animal native to South America, closely related to the llama). They used a special tool called bolas, which are spherical stone balls that wrap around the bird’s neck and kills it.
George Chaworth Musters, a British sailor, explorer, and writer, visited Patagonia in 1870 and spent a considerable amount of time with the Tehuelches Indians. In 1873, Musters published a book about his adventures. It is called At Home with the Patagonian. He wrote, “…dressed in cloaks of skins and shoes of guanaco hide, which made huge footmarks, whence they were called Patagonés, or “large feet,” by the Spaniards; and thus originated in a nickname the name of the country, Patagonia.”
Archeological findings reveal that Patagonia and the Tierra del Fuego were inhabited by native peoples as far back as 4,500 years ago. These native tribes are commonly referred to as ‘Tehuelche tribes’ or ‘Fuegians’ but actually refer to a number of separate groups with their own unique dialects and traditions. Here, these nomadic people roamed desolate landscapes and endured the tough climate while hunting wildlife and marine life for survival.
While some native tribes of Patagonia were largely land-based, others relied on canoes to traverse the labyrinth of channels and waterways around the Tierra del Fuego. Charles Darwin reported seeing such people in his travels and noted that many wore little to no clothing, even in the snow. Instead, they stayed warm by covering themselves in fats and oils from fish and other animals to protect themselves from biting temperatures and winds. Additionally, they often lit a fire in the back of their canoes to keep warm while traveling over chilly waters. These reports are what led to the Tierra del Fuego, ‘Land of Fire.’
Despite the harsh conditions in which they lived and the bad treatment they received by the Europeans, Tehuelches were gentle people. Julius Beerbohm wrote in Wanderings in Patagonia:
They are good-natured, hospitable, and affectionate; their instincts are gentle; violence and ferocity are foreign to their nature, and though not invariable veracious nor strictly honest, if they think you trust them, they will take care not to deceive you. – The indigenous people from Patagonia, South America
We spotted a small cluster of handicraft shops that had big cardboard figures of Tehuelches people.
Apart from Murals, Puerto Natales had many public arts displayed along the coastline and the town.
Even the rubbish bins were artistic.
We came back to our hotel for a sumptuous three-course dinner. It was one of the best salmon I had ever eaten.
We went to bed early in anticipation of our next day’s trip to Torres del Paine.
This article is part four of the series of articles I wrote about my travel to Chile, Argentina, and Peru with my husband in November 2018.
The next post is on Patagonia — Torres Del Paine.